Pastors who were once vibrant and vital in their ministry find themselves exhausted, and challenged to muster the motivation and energy for ministry work.
These pastors find themselves suddenly and inexplicably sapped of energy and strength. They “hit the wall” as one pastor we interviewed put it. The shock and surprise often catapult these pastors into a crisis. We have heard about deep depression, dramatic health declines, or a sudden collapse of ministry effectiveness that resulted from the seemingly sudden onset of burnout. Often pastors react by committing even more strongly to the frenetic, overwhelming pace of ministry that got them into burnout in the first place.
The Three Characteristics of Burnout
- Mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion
- Reduced ministry effectiveness and diminished capacity to adapt & change
- Cynicmism or despondency toward ministry, and toward life in general
The term burnout is commonly used, but often misunderstood. The terms stress and burnout tend to be used interchangeably, but they are very different experiences. Stress is to burnout like a common cold is to a debilitating disease. Stress is an episodic experience, it comes and goes. Burnout is chronic. It is a much more serious condition. When people say they are “stressed out at work” chances are they are experiencing some level of burnout. When burnout is caught in its early stages, remedial action can turn things around quickly. But left unaddressed too long, burnout can require significant long-term support and help to overcome.
Major Causes of Burnout
Research on burnout indicates there are six major causes of burnout. Most of these causes begin by creating work stress and, left unaddressed for very long, they precipitate burnout. We note that all of these are directly impacted by the decisions of local church and denominational leaders. As we noted, preventing and responding to burnout requires a team effort.
- High work demands including such things as heavy workload, unclear ministry responsibilities and insufficient resources for ministry work.
- Low control of work which might include micromanagement from lay or denominational leaders, insufficient empowerment or low influence over important ministry issues, or accountability without power.
- Poor or negative social relationships with parishioners, other clergy, or denominational leaders.
- Unfair treatment at work including discrimination, hyper- criticism of a pastor’s work and disrespectful treatment.
- Poor fit between the pastor and the local church.
- Insufficient ministry pay or benefits can be especially challenging for both younger clergy and older second-career pastors.
Responding to and Preventing Burnout
Because burnout has been the subject of an extensive amount of research in medicine and the social sciences, there are evidence-based approaches that have proven to be effective for responding to and preventing burnout.
Best practices for dealing with high levels of burnout address four core components:
- Stress management. Stress management training comes in a variety of forms, but there are only two approaches that have proven effective, cognitive- behavioral and mindfulness- based stress reduction programs.
- Contemplative/centering practices. There is a large and growing body of research that attests to the healing and nourishing benefits of contemplative and centering practices.
- Personal reflection practices. Another area of practice that shows great promise for overcoming burnout are activities that help pastors step back from theflowofdailylifetogaininsights and perspectives into how their ministry and life is unfolding.
- Small group social support with pastors and other ministers.
Effective Self-Care for Burnout
A variety of research studies, including our own, shows five additional areas of daily practice can be important preventative medicine for burnout:
- Sufficient sleep. Adequate rest and relaxation each day is one key. Research shows that most people, including most pastors, need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
- Relaxation and detachment. In addition to sleep, pastors need daily relaxation and detachment. Relaxation can be achieved in a variety of ways: resting, reading a book or watching television in a comfortable physical position, soothing physical activities such as yoga or walking, or guided relaxation exercises. Detachment is a period of time in which pastors forget about work. It is a time when they are completely free of any ministry responsibility, including the potential for being contacted for ministry emergencies. Relaxation and detachment often go hand-in- hand.
- Daily fun. Engaging in pleasant, positive activities puts us into a good mood, releases tensions, fosters relaxation and detachment, and can be extremely effective in overcoming bad days and forestalling burnout.
- Restorative niche. This may be a new term, but many people have heard of flow experiences which are a first-cousin. A restorative niche is an activity (1) that requires mastery, concentration and effort and (2) one that we enjoy a great deal. You may be tempted to call these “hobbies” but that term tends to carry connotations of frivolousness. Restorative niches are not frivolous. Indeed, they may be among the best ways to overcome burnout and boost overall wellbeing.
There is a wonderful old adage that counsels “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true for burnout. The best approach to dealing with burnout is to prevent it from forming. There is much that pastors can do for themselves, and also a great deal that local churches, judicatories and denominations can do to prevent burnout.
For 25 years Matt Bloom was a tenured professor at the University of Norte Dame. He recently changed roles so he can devote his time to bringing the vast but esoteric body of research on wellbeing to a wider audience, and to working with his co-founders and team at Ritual. Matt’s research focuses on the wellbeing of helping and healing professionals. Matt and his WorkWell team have studied how people find and live into deeply meaningful work, the joys and sorrows they face, and the factors that help make that work life-enriching instead of life-depleting.